The parliamentary election in Kyrgyzstan on October 4, contested by 16 parties, was marred by serious allegations of vote-buying leading to three pro-government parties securing the most votes. Many of the unsatisfied remaining parties joined a massive gathering in the Kyrgyz capital on the day after the election demanding that the results be annulled. The police’s efforts to chase the crowd from the public squares aggravated the mob and the protest spiralled into a night of skirmishes in the streets and the takeover of the White House by protesters. The same night a dozen imprisoned former officials including President Almazbek Atambayev and Sadyr Japarov — now, mere weeks later, serving as both prime minister and acting president — were freed from jail by protesters.
Dirty Elections and Social Unrest
The October 4 election triggered the fall from power of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. Jeenbekov and the Matraimov family — each tied closely to the parties that protesters believe tried to steal the election through vote buying; abuse of Form No. 2, which allows voters to register outside their home districts to vote; and engaging criminal groups — have both apparently fallen from grace.
On the night of October 5 and into the morning of October 6, as Kloop.kg reported, the protesters stormed the White House — where parliament and the president’s offices are located — smashing furniture, looting, and setting offices on fire. The protestors stormed in the State Committee of National Security, too, releasing Atambayev from prison, as well as his political allies including former Prime Minister Sapar Isakov. (Both have since been returned to jail).
The next day, on October 6, Prime Minister Kubartbek Boronov resigned, followed by other cabinet members and officials. Within days, Sadyr Japarov — also freed from prison by a mob on October 6 — was the new prime minister. Pressured to resign, Jeenebkov did so on October 15 and Japarov maneuvered himself into consolidating an unprecedented degree of power in his hands as he took on the role of acting president, too. Japarov appointed his friend and longtime ally Kamchybek Tashiev, head of the Mekenchil party that only barely missed the 7 percent threshold to gain seats in the October 4 election, as head of the State Committee for National Security.
Japarov has lavishly promised deep reforms. Kaktus Media recently outlined Japarov’s bevvy of promises. On fighting corruption, he promised to establish justice in the country and fight corruption regardless of politics; he said the fight against corruption would not be used as a tool for eliminating political opponents and would be based in the rule of law. Regarding the judicial system — under which he says he was jailed on politically motivated charges — he promised transparency, and no pressure on judges from the president’s office. On crime, Japarov promised that organized crime groups would not dictate his actions, nor be allowed to exert influence on average businesses. Japarov pledged a new page for the country’s youth, including avenues to participate in politics. Japarov also promised a special committee on reforms to overhaul the country’s economic approaches, including the dissolution of unnecessary state bodies.
Japarov also promised punishment for the Matraimovs, who allegedly laundered $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan.
Japarov declared that he would direct all his capabilities to the development of Kyrgyzstan and the well-being of its people. He also promised fair elections. But the overextended existing parliament — still sitting as the October 4 results were, as demanded, annulled — has to address election-related issues provided by the Central Election Commission. The most critical issues are the lowering of the electoral threshold to 3 percent, a significant reduction in the mandatory electoral deposit, and discontinuing or reforming Form No. 2.
Japarov’s first actions were swift and decisive: appointing new officials and having Matraimov arrested (though he was released). But concerns remain as to whether he will be able to ensure the legitimization of his rule or will simply consolidate power immovably in his hands.
There are new ministers and heads of the president’s office, the Russian-Kyrgyz development fund, provincial administrations, enforcement agencies, and other bodies. And the authorities have begun investigations into a range of officials for corruption, including Raimbek Matraimov.
But Japarov’s full legitimacy as the head of Kyrgyzstan has yet to be recognized by the international community. The situation remains tenuous, Kyrgyzstan’s political stability an open question. New parliamentary elections should be conducted fairly and soon, under new rules. But the CEC has walked back its announcement of a new election date.
A dilemma exists between Japarov’s obligations to his supporters and the obligations of the offices he how holds to the whole of society. He came to power backed by a narrow portion of people, including some alleged criminal backing. But even if he does appeal to a wider array of Kyrgyz the situation is far from stable. Add to the political instability a weak economic situation, worsened by COVID-19, and a shattered budget with massive domestic and international debts that cannot be settled without foreign financial aid. Meanwhile Russia halted its financial aid until the political situation stabilizes, and China, Kyrgyzstan’s biggest creditor, rejected a request to defer the return of $1.8 billion in loans taken, demanding repayment to start in January 2021.
Famous Kyrgyz scholar Zainidin Kurmanov compared the current development with Russia’s “time of troubles,” arguing, among others, that the so-called political elite, members of parliament, and officials are absolutely unqualified, irresponsible, and incapable of reacting and curbing political crisis when a mob seizes power and puts its own leader in charge. But the mob is not a trustworthy ally; it may turn on its idol tomorrow and overthrow him, too. In the absence of the rule of law, and with only weak state institutions in place the ochlocracy — mob rule — may dictate the country’s course, illegitimately.
Thus, the risks of further economic decline and political instability remain unless Japarov can quickly provide the solid ground necessary for new, legitimate, and democratic elections. If Japarov receives wider international recognition, it will also increase his legitimacy. Society has to be convinced that the current situation is not a coup d’etat by criminal elements, but the consequence of a deep democratic processes, a radical turn in favor of national interests. It’s too early to tell which narrative will win out but until then, the situation remains fragile. Only after the power structures settle into some legitimate form can foreign investment and international support follow — and it can be hoped that in the long-run stable political and state institutions, the rule of law, curbed corruption, and effective governing become the norm.
Ilgiz Kambarov is a Ph.D. student at Kyrgyz Economic University in Bishkek.